The pioneering health care quality report just released by the Minnesota Department of Health should have been accompanied by an old-school breaking news bulletin that went something like this:

"We interrupt the benefits open enrollment season to bring you this announcement: Consumers frustrated by yet another year of rising health care premiums, help is on the way."

In a year dominated by health reform angst, there's been a lot of talk about controlling costs and finding efficiencies -- yet little detail about how that happens. Consumers dismayed by pricey premiums again after years of hefty hikes are understandably skeptical about whether state or federal reforms will help.

Even a quick scan of the weighty 2010 Minnesota Health Care Quality Report, which compares providers' practices and outcomes, should reassure them. Premium relief may not happen this year, but Minnesota is leading the way forward nationally in finding ways to deliver high-level care while reducing cost and waste. The landmark state report released Thursday is a critical first step in making that happen.

Believed to be one of the first of its kind nationally, the report evaluates clinics and hospitals across the state in areas such as diabetes care, heart attack treatment, preventive screenings and treatment for kids with sore throats. Those hewing most closely to established best-practice recommendations fare favorably.

Publishing the findings should provide incentive for lower-rated providers to mend their ways and provide better care. The easy-to-understand findings also empower consumers, providing key information that allows them to evaluate their current providers and prod them to improve care. Or, if patients choose, go elsewhere. This report should put an end to the unfortunate myth that all providers are equal. For many people, it will be an eye-opener to see how their clinic or hospital stacks up. In particular, mothers-to-be will want to look at a key quality metric for hospital maternity care.

The report is mandated by Minnesota's ahead-of-the-curve 2008 health reform law. Although the Minnesota Community Measurement nonprofit organization has already collected and compared health quality information, this is the first time that data's been required from providers across the state. Measures from 520 clinics were analyzed; hospitals submitted more than 40 quality measures. The report also is risk-adjusted so that providers that care for sicker or poorer patients are evaluated fairly -- a key concern about quality comparisons.

As groundbreaking as this report is, the real game-changing state health comparison is yet to come. Next fall, another historic state report will build on the new quality ratings and factor in something new: providers' cost. That will yield a value measurement showing which providers deliver the best care at the most affordable price. A year later, Minnesota's insurers will have to offer plans giving consumers incentives to choose higher-value providers. This will help root out inefficient use of health care dollars without sacrificing care.

Rewarding providers for the quality -- not quantity -- of care is one of the most promising health care cost-control strategies. Consumers understandably are ruing this year's premium increases, but Minnesota's leading-edge health analysis -- and value-indexing efforts getting underway at the federal level -- should give them reason to feel hopeful that coverage will be more affordable in years to come.